Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Why China Will Never Rule the World

why-china-will-never-rule-the-worldA long, long time ago, Troy Parfitt asked me to review his book, Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas. I put this off for long enough that the book has been reviewed many times elsewhere, but I think a review here might be useful anyway. So buckle up.

The book is written primarily in the style of a travelogue, with chapters focused on Parfitt’s experiences in a particular location and ultimately often delving into some relevant aspect of Chinese history. Near the end, he devotes a few pages to his conclusions about why China isn’t going to rule the world, but the book’s content is really better described by its subtitle than its actual title.

Parfitt, a longtime English teacher in Taiwan, explains his trip across China — he ultimately visits or travels through 17 of the PRC’s provinces — as an attempt to understand and assess it. This, unfortunately, means that he’s gone off the rails more or less before the book has even begun, for I can think of no worse way to approach understanding China than by traveling around visiting important historical (i.e., tourist) sites.

First of all, tourist travel ensures the maximum level of exposure to China’s most annoying touts and swindlers. I have traveled much in the manner Mr. Parfitt traveled across China twice during my time here, and both times I can report feeling similar levels of rage and frustration at points along the trip, levels I never come close to when I’m living regular life in Beijing (or before that, Harbin). That said, Parfitt has either written selectively or taken history’s most calamitous trip, as most of my travels in China have been enjoyable overall, despite experiencing many of the annoyances Parfitt mentions. It’s worth noting that he and I visited many of the same places within just a few years of each other, but his impression of them is always negative.

Secondly, while traveling does expose one to a great variety of places and people, thus granting one’s survey great breadth, it virtually ensures that you will be unable to achieve any sort of depth in your understanding. A tourist simply isn’t in any one place long enough to really understand much of anything. Unsurprisingly, then, I found Parfitt’s renderings of Harbin and Beijing among the most offensive, probably because those are cities I’ve lived in for an extended period of time and have more than a cursory understanding of ((Although I’m still far less knowledgable than most locals in either city)).

Finally, tourists are likely to have a very hard time seeing or hearing anything real, because Chinese people — like anyone, really — are going to be hesitant to reveal their true feelings to strangers. That goes doubly for foreigners, and probably triple or quadruple for Taiwan-based foreigners like Parfitt who, I’m guessing, had a hard time concealing his biases.

This is evident all over the place in the book, but to pick an example I’m familiar with, Parfitt writes in Harbin, he had trouble finding anyone who was aware of the 2005 benzene spill that contaminated the Songhua river. From the book:

Oddly, when I asked people about the spill, no one claimed to have any knowledge of it. But then, industrial tragedies, largely the result of neglect and corruption, have become commonplace in Northeast China.

While Parfitt isn’t wrong about the corruption, the idea that anyone living in Harbin in 2005 forgot about the spill is ludicrous. Even when I moved there in 2007, it remained a fairly hot topic, and many of my friends were eager to talk about the experience — days of fear as the water remained off but the government wouldn’t explain why, and bottled water prices skyrocketed — once they had gotten to know me. If I had asked some stranger about the spill, I might have gotten the same responses Parfitt got, but that doesn’t mean those people don’t remember the spill, don’t have opinions about it, or even don’t want to talk about it. All it means is they don’t want to talk about it with a stranger.

But here and elsewhere, Parfitt takes silence or rote answers and jumps to conclusions, asserting variously that Chinese are brainwashed, stupid, or just simply don’t care about their own country. Not infrequently, one comes across phrases like “I could tell what she was thinking,” after which Parfitt attributes a non-speaking Chinese person with whatever response his preconceived notions have caused him to assume they would make. He may, in some of these situations, have been correct in his assumptions. But his failure to account for the jiachou buke waiyang ((家丑不可外扬, dirty laundry shouldn’t be aired in public, i.e., don’t talk about sensitive things with strangers)) aspect of Chinese culture is a huge blow to the persuasiveness of his argument and his general credibility as the narrator who is explaining to us how China works.

At its worst, this tendency for assumption leads to some concerning passages. For example, here’s Parfitt on women who let several young hooligans into a museum without a ticket (or so he says):

Of course, the female clerks had let them in without a ticket. I thought about complaining, but thought better of it. They were doubtlessly just simple women from the neighborhood who sat around knitting all day and didn’t know what the young men were up to.

Mind you, Parfitt has not spoken to these women, nor does he have any actual information about them or their relationship to the young men in question. Nevertheless, he says they were “doubtlessly just simple women […] who sat around knitting all day.”

I could name a bunch of words ending in -ism that describe that sentence pretty well, but honestly, I think it speaks for itself.

Ultimately, in fact, Parfitt asserts that the Chinese are all the same, and that discussing politics with them is pointless:

I have rarely engaged in political discussion or debate with someone from the People’s Republic of China, but when I have, it is always the same. If ever some event, news story, or historical reality is brought up, it will be shot down as propaganda, as if the whole world were engaged in a campaign to besmirch China’s good name.

And then later:

[…] But I knew there was no point in discussing this [Tiananmen]. I knew what I had known for a long time: there was no point in discussing anything.

To be clear, the infuriating method of argumentation Parfitt describes above does exist. But to assert that there’s no point in discussing politics with mainland Chinese because of its existence is ridiculous. Moreover, it would not have been difficult for Parfitt, assuming he is possessed of a computer and an internet connection, to track down Chinese political blogs and come to the conclusion that there is much, much more to the political discussion in the People’s Republic than what random strangers reveal to random “tourists” who are copying down their words in a notebook as they speak.

Aside from being inherently flawed, Parfitt’s investigative methods also veer into unethical territory from time to time. Though he set out on his trip with the express purpose of writing about China, and is taking copious notes, he repeatedly tells people he is simply a tourist. Meanwhile, he quotes them verbatim in the book, and in some occasions mentions surnames that, in combination with the locations he describes, would probably be sufficient enough information to allow the individuals he is quoting in print — without their knowledge or permission — to be identified.

Going by a journalist’s code of ethics, mind you, there are situations where this sort of investigative technique is acceptable, and to his credit, Parfitt is pretty up-front to the reader about what he has done. That said — and admitting that this is somewhat subjective — I don’t think that any of the instances in Why China Will Never Rule the World justify writing about people without their knowledge or consent.

This is especially galling given that Parfitt spends much of the book berating the Chinese for their lack of honesty. Certainly, lying with skill is considered a virtue of sorts by many in China, but Parfitt repeatedly quotes people (apparently) without their permission, pretends he can’t speak or understand Chinese when it suits him, and generally conducts himself in a way that suggests he’s more dedicated to collecting damning anecdotes about China than he is about being honest with the people he’s talking to, whether they’re fellow foreign travelers or locals.

The book is also full of paranoia about China’s authoritarianism. Obviously, I myself am an outspoken critic of the horrific abuses of justice that happen in China, and they are many, but Parfitt goes beyond the fold. He repeatedly twice mentions ‘death vans’ as though they drive around snatching people off the street and executing them on the spot, which as far as I’m aware is not how they work. At one point, Parfitt is allowed into a Taiwanese power plant, and asserts that had he been in China and asked to enter a similar plant:

…I would likely have been arrested and put on an airplane. A local would likely have been arrested and put in a death van.

This is nonsense. Certainly, Parfitt would have been refused entry into most Chinese state-owned power facilities, but he wouldn’t have been arrested or deported unless he was attempting to break in illegally ((OK, or unless he got really unlucky)). Likewise, a local asking for entrance might well be threatened or even beaten if the guards are having a bad day, but an immediate execution? If that sort of thing happens, it is quite uncommon. I’ve never seen evidence of it, and Parfitt doesn’t provide any, he simply makes the statement as though it were fact and then moves on.

All that said, I do have a few positive things to say about the book. The writing is competent and it’s quite readable; once I finally got a copy of the thing, I blew through it in just a couple days. Parfitt also does a good job of summing up important historical events clearly and concisely, although they’re presented based on when he visited different locations rather than in any kind of chronological order. (Also, for most readers of this blog, there’s probably not much there you don’t already know).

Finally, there’s the question of Parfitt’s actual argument: that China really has nothing to offer Taiwan or the rest of the world:

Unless it attempts to do so by force, China is never going to shape the world. It is just another backward, bitter, idiosyncratic, xenophobic, despotic, intellectually impoverished nation-state; one effectively devoid of tact, charm, grace, creativity, or emotional intelligence, and to that end, it is definitely not unique. Why not herald Turkmenistan, Burma, or Iran as the next big-man-on-campus?

The answer, of course, is economics — Iran is not the second-largest economy in the world, nor has it been developing at breakneck speed for the past several decades. Overall, it’s a dramatic overstatement on Parfitt’s part, but there is a smaller point lodged within it that I think is valid.

Several times near the end of the book, Parfitt asks Chinese and Taiwanese people what Chinese culture has to offer the West. The answers he gets are hesitant or vague (“harmony”) and I must admit that that question — what does Chinese culture have to offer the rest of the world? — isn’t particularly easy to answer. Certainly some aspects of traditional Chinese culture (the food) have caught on outside China’s borders, and the fact that you can see people from New York to Moscow eating with chopsticks is a testament to China’s cultural contributions from the world.

But, Parfitt is correct to suggest that China’s economic ascendancy isn’t going to do anything to make traditional value systems like Confucianism popular in the West ((Parfitt lumps Daoism in with Confucianism on this point, which I think is fairly misleading. In any event, Daoism does have some appeal in the West, as evidenced in the popularity of books like the Daodejing, not to mention stuff like the Tao of Pooh if you count such things.)), and China’s present system of government doesn’t seem to have much appeal to developed countries, either. Even the so-called best traits of Chinese culture — like Confucian family dynamics — aren’t likely to catch on in the West.

I’m not sure that is going to matter, though. Ultimately, China’s economic power, mammoth military, and perceived influence could be more than enough to help it shape the coming century, warts and all. Certainly, a survey of the US at the beginning of the twentieth century would have revealed a society rife with racism, xenophobia and other social issues, yet America went on to dominate that century. That doesn’t mean China will do the same thing, but I’m not convinced that anything Parfitt encountered on his trips means it won’t, either.

Personally, I’m also not sure it makes any difference. Obviously, I have vested interests in the future of China on a deeply personal level, but even if China isn’t destined for world domination, its fate matters. Wherever China goes, so too go 1.3 billion people, and I think even if you are convinced they’re all dishonest rubes, that ought to matter.

Book Review: Such Is This World@sars.come

Such is this worldI have been intrigued by Hu Fayun’s Such Is This World@sars.come since I read Perry Link’s excellent review of the Chinese text back in the fall of 2010. It even inspired me to pick up a copy of the book in Chinese from, which I read the first twenty or so pages of at my agonizingly slow pace before putting it down for something else. Later, when I learned the mainland Chinese version was heavily censored anyway, I felt rather disinclined to pick it back up, and so there on the shelf it sits.

Luckily for me, A. E. Clark took it upon himself to translate the novel in its entirety. Problem solved! And even better, the book is available in hardcover and e-book versions. I had the fortune to be able to check them both out, as Mr Clark was kind enough to send me a hard copy in addition to the PDF version that I read with ease on my Kindle ((a wonderful device for travelers, by the way.)) .

Both versions are excellent, although Clark has annotated his text with a veritable mountain of end notes that weren’t easily accessible in a PDF. It can also be a bit of a hassle to flip back and forth to the notes in the book, but I can understand the decision not to include them as footnotes, as it would have made the novel look more like a scholarly text at first glance (which is often all a book shopper ever gives a book, those who still buy their books in “bookstores” ((Physical locations in space where books were once collected and offered for sale)) anyway). But the truth is, the novel can be enjoyed entirely without reading the notes. A thorough reader will be rewarded, certainly, but even the average reader with little knowledge of China will be able to read most of the book without flipping back and forth to glance at the end notes.

As for the translation, it is excellent. Clark clearly knows that with this kind of source material, the best thing he can do is step out of the way and let the tale weave its magic, and for the most part, he succeeds in doing that. One might easily read this book without realizing it had been translated from another language, were it not for the copious end notes. And what’s more, at least based on the few pages of the Chinese original I have read, Clark has managed to approximate original author Hu Fayun’s writing style, which is artful but wholly unpretentious.

In fact, the only place where Hu’s writing abilities seem to have failed him (and even Clark’s expert translation abilities cannot save him here) is in the title. The Chinese original is Ru Yan@sars.come, Ru Yan being the name of the protagonist. I have read the book, and I understand why it was called this, sort of, but that is an awful title. Absolutely awful. When I was at home, I told family members I was in the middle of reading a book called Such is This World@sars.come and they looked at me like I was from the moon. I don’t blame them; it’s not at all clear that’s a even title. It looks like a poorly mistyped email address! The title is awful. Clark does attempt to explain it somewhat in a footnote, but I’m not buying it.

Luckily, you only have to read the title once, and then you can start the actual book, which is much better. The plot revolves primarily around a 40-something widow named Ru Yan whose only son has gone abroad to study, leaving her home alone with a dog and a computer that her son has connected to the internet for her. Through this new window into China, Ru Yan quickly makes contact, though indirectly at first, with the book’s other occasional protagonist, an older intellectual named Damo whose story we experience largely through flashbacks that take him and a small group of like-minded thinkers through the Cultural Revolution, the opening up of the 1980s, and eventually into the present, where some have moved abroad, others have remained at home but joined the system they once scorned, and Damo alone has persevered in the cause, writing articles of exquisite incisiveness online whenever he isn’t busy fixing people’s refrigerators.

It might seem paradoxical that the story of an elderly widow could resonate with a young, strapping lad such as myself ((OK, “strapping” may be an exaggeration. Or an outright lie.)), but actually, Ru Yan’s is a story of discovery that many China watchers have experienced firsthand. As she is wowed by the opportunities and the sheer vastness the internet offers, so too are many foreigners blown away by their first experiences in China. Eager to make sense of it all, they tend to burrow by choice or by circumstance into small communities of like-minded people, just as Ru Yan gets her first real taste of the ‘net life by joining an empty nest forum for lonely parents. And, eventually, something causes them to venture beyond that community, or even works its way inside it, and forces them to realize that not all is perfect in paradise. So it is with Ru Yan, too.

As you might or might not have guessed from the stupid title, the main plot arc revolves around the SARS outbreak, which Ru Yan gets an early handle on because a family member of hers in the south has come down with the mysterious disease. Eager to warn her new friends on the internet, she posts about SARS on the forum, and people who remember the SARS outbreak can probably guess how things go from there. Her posts are deleted, she receives odd threats, others step in to her defense, and ultimately a war of sorts breaks out. Political agendas are being pushed on both sides, but Ru Yan doesn’t see herself as political at all, she simply thinks people ought to be warned about the disease.

Hu Fayun
Author Hu Fayun
Against this backdrop, Ru Yan’s offline life is expanding. A coworker has introduced her to the city’s most eligible bachelor, who happens to be a high official in charge of public health. And a meet-up of internet friends offline has connected her with Damo and his circle of intellectuals, which now includes as CASS professor, an overworked lawyer, and several overseas Chinese.

There are several conversations about China’s future and overseas Chinese in the book that I think should be required reading for the entire comments section of this blog. In fact, the book as a whole contains honest and open political discussions of the sort that are far too lacking these days whether we’re talking about China or any other country. By setting these arguments as mostly between friends, Hu is able to portray both perspectives fairly and honestly, although it is clear where his own feelings lie. At one point, Damo is talking to one of his best friends, the CASS professor, who he has discovered has written a toadying book and, to Damo’s way of thinking, betrayed the cause of greater freedoms in China. There are several extended and fascinating discussions of this, but one ends with Damo Teacher Wei, the group’s elder mentor, saying,

“I tell you, Maozi, when I learned about that book of yours I cursed you in my heart, but even more fiercely did I curse the environment that consumes a human being, devours him right down to the bones. China doesn’t lack for experts in political thought. Her scholars don’t lack for brains. It’s just that some have been smothered, others have been intimidated, and still others have freely made themselves accomplices. If you want to talk about tragedies, this is the greatest tragedy that can befall a people.”

Update note: I mistakenly attributed this quote to Damo, but it’s actually from Teacher Wei, a fascinating character and one of my favorites in the book, but also a man whose story almost requires a novel to tell it — I simply couldn’t find an artful way to squeeze him in here. Suffice it to say that he is yet another reason you should read this book.

This is one of the novel’s central theses, actually, but to definite it by its political aspects alone would be overly simplistic. It is, I think, one of those great works of art in which there are villainous acts but no true villains, in which every character is if not likable then at least human. Hu Fayan has resisted the urge to make the censors and the bureaucrats of this book into Hitlers, and even in a scene where city workers are brutally killing dogs, ostensibly because it might stop the spread of SARS, Hu conveys their actions with contempt but also with a kind of understanding that these actions are borne of the society, the environment, in which those workers live. (Ru Yan the character is a much less forgiving critic of the dog-killers, but it is my suspicion that it’s Damo, not Ru Yan, who is the proxy for the author’s own perspective in this novel).

Anyway, this review has gone on far too long, and in the course of writing it I am learning that Such Is This World is a book that’s very difficult to sum up without missing something. Richard from Peking Duck came close when he wrote:

Hu Fayun has written the book I’ve dreamed of: historical fiction that truly captures what China was like during the time of SARS, and that in doing so opens a panoramic historiographical window on modern China.

I will go even simpler: this is a good book, and you should buy it. You should buy it because if you’re reading this blog (yes, even if you’re just here to troll the comments section) you will probably like it, and you will definitely learn something from it. You should also buy it to help ensure that in the future, translations of excellent and important works such as this continue to be written.

Kudos to Mr. Hu and to Mr. Clark for this wonderful piece of literature.

Review: Henry Kissinger’s “On China”

Kissinger’s China tome, which is now available, is sort of an intimidating book to review. It is unrepentantly direct right down to the cover “design” which is pictured at right here. Henry Kissinger On China. No photo, no summary on the back of the jacket. What you’re getting is Kissinger on China, and if that hasn’t sold you, this book isn’t for you. That might seem cocky, but it’s probably accurate, and Henry Kissinger is a famous diplomat and an 88-year-old man who doesn’t care at all what you think about his book cover.

Anyway, the book itself is more or less what you’d expect: a fairly exhaustive review of China’s foreign relations through the ages, though with a heavy emphasis on modern China. Students of Chinese history will be mostly familiar with what Kissinger offers up about China’s foreign relations during the dynastic period; it’s very competently explained, but there’s not much new there if you’ve spent some time studying the period already. Still, it’s good to review, and it lays the groundwork for one of his main theses; namely that modern Chinese foreign policy has inherited more than you might expect at first from ancient barbarian-management techniques.

There are some bizarre jumps in history. Most noticeably, after spending quite a bit of time on the fall of the Qing, Kissinger breezes through the Republican period, the war with Japan, and the Civil War in just a few pages. Yuan Shikai takes power from Sun Yat-sen in the beginning of one paragraph, and he’s dead before the end of it, his disastrous reign having been reduced to essentially a single sentence. It’s odd, because a lot of things that happened during this period affect the way China deals with outsiders today, especially Japan; and certainly, the US involvement with the Republican government as well as the second World War and (to a much lesser extent) the Chinese civil war might be worth a mention.

Of course, the real reason anyone is reading this book is to get the inside scoop on the rocky-but-fascinating Sino-American relationship that started with Nixon’s historic visit and continues today. Kissinger played significant roles in the China policy of several administrations, and as such, he was privy to (and relates stories about) conversations on both sides that are quite interesting. We see Mao become increasingly sick and out of touch until, during Kissinger’s last conversation with him, he has an interpreter of sorts for himself because his speech has become so muffled and slurred that the regular interpreter can’t understand what he’s saying.

And, of course, we get to see a succession of American presidents confront and be baffled to various degrees by China and its often esoteric leaders. Sometimes, the candor is quite surprising. I especially enjoyed Richard’ Nixon’s off-the-cuff thoughts as relayed by Kissinger early on in the book (best if read while imagining the Nixon voice from Futurama):

“Well, you can just stop and think of what could happen if anybody with a decent system of government got control of the mainland. Good God…there’s be no power in the world that could even — I mean, you put 800 million Chinese to work under a decent system…and they will be the leaders of the world.”

Sort of prophetic, although “decent system” is a relative term.

Fun with Nixon aside, it’s an incredibly astute and informative read. That said, there are two things that bothered me about it, aside from the history-jumping. The first is that Kissinger overuses weiqi ((You know, the Chinese chess-like game that involves surrounding the other player’s pieces)) as a metaphor and explanation for everything Chinese leaders do. The first few times, it’s a meaningful observation, but the more it comes up, the more it feels like a crutch, and I have to assume that in many of these cases even if the weiqi analogy was one aspect of the Chinese perception of a strategic problem (say, for example, Vietnam’s cooperation with the Soviet Union), there are probably other metaphors to use and other aspects worth examining. This is by no means a reason to avoid reading the book, just a warning that by the time you’re 400 pages in you’ll probably be groaning to yourself every time you read the word weiqi.

My second complaint is even less significant; I simply felt that Kissinger afforded too much importance to the nationalist books Unhappy China (中国不高兴) and China Dream. I’ve read segments of the former, and it is basically trash — there may be fair points to be made that support the author’s conclusions, but the author does not make them. China Dream may be better, but in his epilogue Kissinger spends a few pages on these books — odd when a topic as large and important as the Civil War barely got a paragraph. Obviously, he finished writing his book around the time when those books were making waves, but it makes the whole thing seem a bit dated now. It’s only a couple years later, but does anyone still care about Unhappy China?

That said, On China is an excellent read and if you’re at all interested in Chinese foreign policy or the Sino-American relationship you should absolutely buy it. If you’re interested in learning more about the personalities of some of the CPC’s most famous (and infamous) leaders it’s worth buying for that too, as Kissinger hasn’t shied away from sharing his more personal impressions of various officials’ personalities. Coming in at over 500 pages of not-overly-dry-but-not-gripping-either analysis, it’s not exactly the year’s summer beach read unless you’re the sort of person who simply has to hear the latest gossip about Mao from the early 1970s.

Then again, if you’re that kind of person you might well be reading this blog. So, buy the book, read it, enjoy it, and thank me later. Or now, your call.

Note: I was provided with a free advance review copy of the book in order to write this review. Probably obvious, but you know I’m a fan of disclaimers and disclosure, so there you have it.

A Review of Han Han’s 《独唱团》

Han Han’s new literary magazine, 《独唱团》, has been out for nearly a month now. There’s been plenty of buzz, especially given the official media instructions not to publish stories about it. The Global Times, for example, ran only one piece, which focused mostly on criticism of the magazine, despite the fact that the critics they were quoting hadn’t actually read the magazine.

Criticizing something you haven’t actually read is, of course, quite stupid. But are they right? Is 《独唱团》really just a collection of hoodlums writing pseudo-literature? The answer is complicated.

Of course, I need to preface anything I write here with a big disclaimer: I am not at all qualified to make any real literary criticism of Chinese work. I don’t have the sense of tone that a native reader would, and besides, there were plenty of words in 《独唱团》I’d never seen before. And I don’t know much about art or photography, either Given that, I approached the magazine like a casual reader rather than someone setting out to review it. If I wasn’t enjoying a piece, I stopped reading it. So take everything that follows with a bucket of salt. Or two.

The best pieces in 《独唱团》shine. The first piece, “Green Trains,” by Zhou Yunpeng, is a compelling and vivid collection of moments on trains from the blind author’s life. And “A Male Qiu Ju Story” — the title is a reference to Zhang Yimou’s film The Story of Qiu Ju — is an enthralling exposition of how much red tape one must plunge through to get what they are owed sometimes. There’s not much there one couldn’t get from the film, but it’s well written and the author insists that it’s a true story. There’s something to be said for that.

Not that all the true stories were good. “Motorcycle Diary”, for example, appears to be mostly a vehicle for the author to brag to the masses about his immense wealth. Congratulations, buddy. You own some cars. Get over yourself.

The essays of the magazine fared less well than the stories, though I did enjoy “Where is the dirt in dirty words,” a rather tongue-in-cheek analysis of the unique ways that curses are constructed in colloquial Chinese speech. But several others bored me to the extent that I stopped reading halfway through.

The magazine’s most interesting conceit is a long piece called “Everyone asking everyone” that is exactly what it sounds like, random people asking questions of other random people. Questions vary wildly from the political and the literary to the intimately personal — the magazine features one annoyed girlfriend asking her beau when he’s finally going to marry her. “When we have money,” he said. “And next time, we can just talk about this between the two of us, there’s no need to have some magazine representing and asking the question for you.” The political questions tend to go nowhere, as the “answers” are usually prefab rejection letters from whichever political institution is being questioned. As far as politics go, the magazine is pretty tame when compared to Han Han’s blog. (Compared to some of the things Ai Weiwei says, it might as well be the People’s Daily).

If anybody “won” 《独唱团》 it’s the photographers, whose work is almost all excellent. Ai Weiwei’s x-ray of his brain is in there — a piece we posted way back when it was medical documentation and not art — but better work comes from others. Yan Ming’s photo essay “My Wharf” starts with a striking shot of a man wading out into the misty gray of open water, his gaze and his swim trunks both fixed higher than one would expect (see photograph above).

The other art is mostly interesting too, although one of the comics (“Milk Rivulet”) is pretty juvenile. The magazine is closed out by a graphic short called “The Darkness Outside Night” that paints a simple but tragic story with evocative watercolor textures that recall more traditional Chinese painting styles without aping them. The first frame of the story is beautiful enough that I would buy a large poster of it and have it framed if I could (see image at left).

I have, until now, ignored the reason anyone read this magazine in the first place. It is, after all, Han Han behind the wheel. How does his piece, “I want to chat with society”, hold up?

Badly. We have mentioned the sexism that occasionally plagues Han Han’s writing before, but it comes into sharp focus in his full length piece for 《独唱团》. In it, Han Han describes an encounter with a prostitute named Shan Shan. Her appearance is “very average”, but he lets her into his hotel room because the door doesn’t have a peephole and he’s feeling adventurous (generally, he says, he always checks first because what if he opens the door and there is “a pig” standing there?). Of course, he fucks her, but one gets the impression he’s doing the whole thing ironically — using her on multiple levels at the same time. Later, he asks her to stand in front of the light coming in from a window so that he can sleep, and when she springs into action, he thinks to himself, “this whore will do anything for money.” Later, she tells him she’s only willing to do anything because she is pregnant, doesn’t know who the father is, and needs to save money to raise the child. Immediately Han Han tells her to stop standing and get some rest. What a hero! No, wait, I meant the other thing. Jackass.

Granted, it’s fiction (one hopes), and the story goes on from there, but there are similar strains in his introduction to the magazine, where he writes “…so that’s what the world is like; men change the world, and women change men’s viewpoints.” The poor guy just can’t help himself. We’ve seen hints of it before, but as they begin to pile up, will his female fan base begin to erode?

Probably not. The man is young, rich, attractive, and he drives race cars.

Still, his piece was enough to put me off of the whole magazine a bit. I’ll buy the next issue when it comes out — if it’s anything like this one, we can expect it sometime in the fall of 2011 — and I’m sure it will be good. Just like this issue. Good, but not great. Here’s hoping that Han Han finds the right woman between now and then, and that she smacks some sense into him.

After all, isn’t that what Shanghai women do best?

Book Review: Apologies Forthcoming

The following is a review of Xujun Eberlein’s newest book, Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not About Mao. This review refers to the Asian edition of the text, published in Hong Kong by Blacksmith books. In the interest of full disclosure, ChinaGeeks received a complimentary review copy of the book from the publisher. Also, fair warning, this review contains some foul language. We know that seems weird for a book review, but we stand by it anyway.

I’ve been reading Xujun Eberlein’s work for nearly a year now, though originally I had no idea she wrote fiction. For those who don’t already know, Eberlein manages the excellent blog Inside-Out China. But when I saw the cover of Apologies Forthcoming, it baffled me a bit. “Stories Not About Mao” is an interesting subtitle. Was it meant to be taken at face value? Or is it a Sun Also Rises sort of title, meant to call attention to Mao in its own oblique way? I plunged into the book, eager to find out, but I also contacted Mrs. Eberlein, who had this to say about the subtitle:

[A] subtitle was required by my HK publisher – my guess is it’s their tradition to have subtitles for all their books, so it is unique to the HK edition. The US edition does not have a subtitle. I used “Stories not about Mao” as the subtitle because, though the stories in this book are mostly set in the Mao era (or immediately after) , it was not my intention to point fingers at a particular scapegoat (there are already plenty of books doing that), rather my interest as a writer is mainly in the exploration and display of human nature. Mao alone would not have achieved the great calamity of the CR; the whole nation participated with enthusiasm, and one really had to be there to see how sincere and fanatic people were. Yet decades later all we heard and read were accusations against a small number of leading figures, with little reflection of what “we” did. In a sense, my stories are about “us,” the participants, not “him.”

The stories in Apologies Forthcoming, while perhaps not political, are certainly historical. In her best moments, Eberlein takes massive historical moments and infuses them with personality, emotion, and life. Some are set in during the Cultural Revolution, some during the eighties, and one — the final story, “Second Encounter” — during the present day; all but one — “Second Encounter” — are set in China. The characters in them are not politicians. They are people, and one gets the impression from time to time that there are bits of Eberlein’s own personal experience woven throughout.

The collection’s weakest moments are when Eberlein resorts to somewhat dry explanation of the history. As the book is in English, she certainly would have good reason to expect that some of her readers are relatively ignorant, but the explanations really only serve to take the reader out of the real story for a moment. Sometimes, sadly, a moment is all it takes. In encountering these moments of explication — which are few — I was reminded of something David Simon, writer of the acclaimed TV program The Wire, once said in an interview:

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.


I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out.

After the first few stories, however, Eberlein’s explication of history happily fades into the background and her heart-wrenching characters are allowed to take the forefront. Beginning with “Feathers”, the fourth of eight stories, every story in the book is absolutely excellent.

In “Feathers”, for example, Eberlein uses a child’s perspective — a narrative technique she wields multiple times throughout the collection and with great success — to communicate the pain of loss and, simultaneously the power of fiction — or delusion.

“Watch the Thrill” is an absolutely chilling piece, narrated once again by a child who is entertained by the horrors of Cultural Revolution excess — as well as the natural cruelties of life — because these things liberate him, momentarily, from the soul-crushing boredom of day-to-day life. Childlike innocence takes on a rather frightening face here, and Eberlein’s ending to the story is fantastically abrupt — and powerful. It is one of those moments that can only exist on the written page: in the HK edition, perhaps intentionally, the story ends at the very bottom of a page, so that the reader turns to the next one expecting more to the story and finding none. It is a cold realization, but these moments are why we read books.

“Disciple of the Masses” is enthralling, and heartbreaking. “The Randomness of Love” is fascinating. But if the star of this show isn’t “Feathers” or “Watch the Thrill”, it’s “Second Encounter”. The final tale in the book, it ties the other stories together in a roundabout sort of way, leaving you feeling like perhaps you’ve just read a novel disguised as collection of short fiction. Given that, I don’t want to give away much about the plot, but suffice it to say it is powerful, and it ends the book perfectly.

Eberlein does have another writing quirk that bears mentioning here. When writing dialogue, she translates some colloquial Chinese expressions fairly literally. This adds color and character to her language, and I enjoyed it, but it may bother some readers to see, for example, that she has clearly rendered the Chinese curse 他妈的 as “His mother’s” rather than the more typical (if indirect) translation, “Fuck.”

Apologies Forthcoming is not perfect, but parts of it are. Florid praise draped over the back cover as it is, I think I shall put it more simply: it is a book you should read. Eberlein has done what we so often forget to do, she has put people into history and let them tell their own stories. These are not stories about Mao. They are stories about Shanzi, Sail, Wang Qiang, Wei Dong, and many more. The names may mean nothing to you now, but given a chance, some of them will surely find a place in your heart.

Both the American and Asian editions of Apologies Forthcoming are available at Amazon, among many other places.

Review: “Prisoner of the State”

This is a review of the book Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, written by Zhao Ziyang and translated/edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. It is published by Simon and Schuster and is available on Amazon in hardback for $16.56 USD. A Chinese version is also available in Hong Kong.

TIME wrote of Prisoner of the State: “Zhao might be more dangerous in death than he is in life.” It is, in fact, the power quotation, lying neatly atop the inside fold of the front cover, prefacing the summary — and indeed the book itself — with a promise of power. Whether this is the work of savvy advertisers or naive dreamers is unclear, but after reading Prisoner of the State one thing seems clear: Zhao isn’t any more of a threat to the Party now than he was before his death in 2005.

Prisoner of the State is not a revolution, nor will it cause one. Once you get that expectation out of your head, though, it’s a fascinating look into the inner workings of the CCP. This is not just Zhao’s diary of the Tiananmen crisis; in fact, Zhao’s account of that incident is a scant forty-five pages, after which he delves into other matters including his house arrest and his history within the Party fighting to advance economic reforms. He also offers his thoughts on how China should change, but there’s little of interest to see there. Zhao dictated the contents of Prisoner of the State onto audio tapes in the early 1990s; his analysis of what future-China needs isn’t particularly deep and parts of it are already outdated.

What it comes down to, then, is whether or not you’re interested in the back-room dealings that seem to have governed nearly every aspect of the CCP decision-making process. There’s backstabbing and intrigue aplenty, most interestingly during 1989, when every word of Zhao’s speeches was carefully scrutinized by opponents eager to see him fall. There’s the not-so-surprising revelation that Deng Xiaoping’s word was more or less law; once Deng’s opinion turned against Zhao, Zhao implies, there was nothing for him to do. By the time he appeared in the Square and made his famous speech (pictured above), his career was already dead.

Most of the book is focused on the economic development of the 1980s, and the various forces within the Party that were working for (or against that). Factions under the banners of Party elders, who had few official titles but massive influence, clash repeatedly, though Zhao is mostly shielded from the fray by Deng and Hu Yaobang until 1989. Though technically he was one of the most important people in China, one sometimes gets the impression that Zhao is a bit like Calvin and Hobbes barreling down tree-lined slopes in their red wagon: he isn’t so much driving as throwing his weight around trying to prevent narrow misses and put off the inevitable moment when the thing plows into a tree and he’s thrown clear. That’s right, China is a wagon in this metaphor!

Anyway, for me the most telling portion of the book was the chapter on Zhao’s house arrest, when the topic turns abruptly from the life-and-death political games of the leaders of one of the world’s largest countries to Zhao’s struggle to get his captors to let him play golf. Zhao loved golf, and repeatedly threatened to walk out his door and “take the bus” to the course, a threat which he reports often got them to send over a car and let him play a few rounds. When he’s not playing golf, or trying to play golf, he’s working on the minutia of his case, pointing out Party rule infractions that made his dismissal illegal. Of course, no one is listening — generally, no one even responds.

And that, I think, will likely be the effect of Prisoner of the State. It’s a fascinating resource for scholars, but it’s about as “dangerous” as Zhao’s letters to his old colleagues in the Party: no one [in China] is listening, and even if they were, the time has passed. Zhao, Deng, Hu Yaobang, Chen Yun, and most of the other major players in Zhao’s memoir are dead. Those that are still alive (most notably Wen Jiabao, China’s current Premier and Zhao’s chief assistant in 1989) are surprisingly absent from the text, perhaps by design.

Another June 4th has passed, and it seems unlikely that Prisoner of the State will be the thing that finally gets the government to admit its mistake. Still, the book offers a deeper understanding of that night to those seeking it, and perhaps more valuable, a deeper understanding of the progresses and setbacks that led up to it. Zhao may not be dangerous in death, but that doesn’t mean he’s boring.